It’s fifty years since a woman first flew in outer space, so why do space-themed children’s toys, books and clothes rarely show girls? asks Tricia Lowther.
Fifty years ago this weekend, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to travel into outer space. Tereshkova was a cosmonaut on the USSR spaceflight Vostok 6, two years after Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 spaceflight. By the 1980’s female astronauts were commonplace, amongst them Sally Ride, the youngest ever US astronaut, and Helen Sharman, who beat almost 13,000 applicants to become the first British astronaut. As I write, US astronaut Karen Nyberg is taking part in her second space trip aboard the International Space Station. So, you have to wonder why a recent entry to The Everyday Sexism project read: “My daughter asked today if she could change into a boy so she could go into space.”
The boy astronaut is a common motif when it comes to products aimed at children. If a toy shelf has a ‘Boys’ sign above it you can be sure that anything connected with outer space will be there. It’s not just toys; clothes, greetings cards, bedding, all sorts of items aimed at children label astronauts, rockets and aliens as ‘boys’. On a trip to the shops with my daughter last week, we saw numerous boy astronaut motifs; on books, stickers, clothes etc., but no girls.
When my daughter asked for her bedroom to be decorated in an outer space theme I began an online search and found the idea overwhelmingly represented as a boys theme: images of bedding with boy as astronaut next to girl as, (what else?), princess; ‘Ideas for Boy’s Bedrooms’ writ large above the webpage. I realised my plan of looking at ideas with her and choosing together would be difficult if I wanted her to avoid these ridiculous gendered messages. The same goes for choosing toys and books with gender parity on the boxes/in the pages, if space is for everyone, why do I have to search beyond the usual to find books and images that represent girls and women?
Space fascinates people across all walks of life, irrelevant of gender so it’s hard to understand why retailers and manufacturers refuse to acknowledge the interest of girls. In Carrie Goldman’s, Bullied, (a book that grew from a blog post about Goldman’s daughter being ridiculed for taking a Star Wars product into school), Ashley Eckstein, who voices Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars: The Clone Wars movie, suggests that there’s no impetus to change the marketing for a hugely successful product, even if, as in the case of Star Wars, research shows that close to 50% fans are female. The viewing figures for the Syfy channel support this, with a gender breakdown of 56% male and 44% female.
Dr Jenny Search is a Durham based scientist who provides activity sessions for schools. She says; “I work in a lot of primary schools and space activities always go down well, I have never noticed a gender split – if something is fun and engaging, children enjoy it regardless of gender. I often observe adults have their own perceptions though with comments like, ‘Thanks, the boys really enjoyed launching the rockets’, when in fact the whole class has enjoyed it”.
Jenny’s daughter asked for a ‘space party with a moon cake’ for her 5th birthday party. Jenny said; “Some parents seemed surprised that a girl would want a space theme rather than a princess theme. I used a transfer to print a rocket on one of her t-shirts to wear at the party as all space themed kids’ clothes seem to be for boys.”
I asked the National Space Centre for an opinion on space and gender. They told me; “we do not create any gender specific content, the focus is very much on fun for all the family and communicating a fascinating subject matter relevant to all”. They also assured me that their gift shop is laid out by product type with nothing gender specific, the only theme being space – good news for any parents planning to take their children.
Kate Gray has a different story to tell about her visit to the gift shop at the Kennedy Space Centre, Florida; “it’s such an inspiring place, full of science and wonder, but when you get to the shop, the majority of clothing for girls is pink, glittery, or talks about being a “space princess”. It is such a shame because NASA themselves do such a lot to encourage women and girls into STEM careers, but gift stores at their centres, (not run by them), don’t seem to follow the same tack. It’s really bad that having been encouraged to dream about exploring, seeing what’s possible, perhaps even meeting astronauts, that the girl’s souvenir t-shirts fall back on lazy “girly” stereotypes. I was really disappointed.”
Science writer and broadcaster Sue Nelson agrees, she mentions an astronaut Barbie key ring that was a gift from a NASA shop; “the packaging has a pink background and – while delighted at the kitsch nature of the present and that at least there’s a woman astronaut – that has to be countered by the fact that it proudly states: First stilettos on the moon!”
Sue complained to her local Tesco after being shocked that telescopes, microscopes and crystal growing science kits were deemed ‘boys toys’. She says; “Space toys shouldn’t have a gender. As a kid, I loved anything space related and wrote to NASA aged 13 asking how to become an astronaut. When are the world and toy manufacturers going to wake up to the fact that women have been going into space for 50 years? Women are space scientists, engineers, astronauts and scientists. It should be absolutely normal to see this reflected in toys.”
Kate and Sue are among 45 women who have reached the second round of the Axe/Lynx space challenge to become an astronaut. They are part of Astrogrrls, a campaign to encourage and support women entering the competition, in which Lynx came under fire for sexist advertisements.
Physics and Astrophysics student, Gillian Finnerty, helped to found the Astrogrrls. Gillian is disheartened by the way space themed toys are too often marketed to boys and says that toy packaging can be seen as a form of discrimination; “We need to let marketers know that sexist packaging and advertising is unacceptable, such packaging should not reach the eyes of young, impressionable children, or anyone for that matter.” Gillian thinks that the repeated viewing of these images may have an effect on career choices in later life.
— Dianne Delahunty (@diannedelahunty) January 8, 2017
Space scientist, Maggie Aderin-Pocock recently talked to The Guardian about the way society pigeonholes people according to their sex; “People often respond with surprise to the fact that I’m a space scientist – they’re not expecting to see a black woman in the role – and I’d like to see a time when those barriers didn’t exist, when girls believed they could do anything”. She mentioned a ball game she’d bought for her three year old daughter that was described on the packaging as a boy’s toy.
I recently took a decision not to buy anything for my daughter that was labelled ‘boys’ or came from a shelf that said ‘boys’. While this can make shopping tricky, it makes us more creative, and at least her outer space themed bedroom will not be lining the pockets of companies who promote gender stereotypes. If all parents did this perhaps the drop in profits would force retailers and manufacturers to see that everyone should be able to reach for the stars.